One of the surprise packages four years ago, Dick Advocaat’s team will be chomping at the bit to get another kick of the can this time around. In many ways the Russians were one of the delights of Euro 2008 with their attacking flair and opportunistic panache, and are a common choice to be dark horse candidates in Poland and Ukraine. A 3-0 win over Italy in a warm-up friendly last Friday was a statement of intent for a team currently unbeaten in 14 matches, and captain Andrei Arshavin appears revitalized – if not yet a regular on the scoresheet – having returned to Zenit St. Petersburg after three years at Arsenal. Favourites to emerge as the winner of Group A, Russia will regard anything less than a quarter-final appearance a major disappointment, and this game against the Czech Republic will serve as a litmus test for their chances in this tournament.
The Czechs enter Euro 2012 as a heavily made-over squad after their failure to reach the 2010 World Cup, and while veterans such as goalkeeper Petr Cech, midfielder Tomas Rosicky and striker Milan Baros will form the spine of the team, coach Michal Bilek has drafted in a raftload of youngsters to bolster the squad – particularly players that ply their trade in the Czech Republic, which is a departure from teams in the past. Whether that experiment will work is yet to be seen, but the team is undoubtedly lacking the talent of the 1996 and 2004 editions, where the Czechs made the final and semi-final respectively. But in the less-than-stellar Group A, anything can happen.
The top scorer from Euro 2004 has certainly seen his star plummet from the sky since those heady days. Though he has 41 international goals to his name, he has found the back of the net only three times in the last two years, and though he’s serves as the lone striker at the apex of a 4-2-3-1 system, the team will be hard pushed to rely on the former Liverpool man for goals. Injuries have been another Achilles heel, and the Galatasaray striker needed to pass a late fitness test just to take the field for his nation’s opening game. If he is unable to get untracked, it could be a short stay in Poland and Ukraine for the 1976 European champions.